Drive state Highway 202 from Astoria to Olney and you will encounter what seems like an eternally slipshod section of road near milepost 7.
Orange “rough road” and “bump” signs have become almost permanent installations, warning of a sunken patch not far from where a bend takes drivers out of sight of Youngs River before Walluski Loop Road.
It is a stretch of highway that has cost the state an estimated $30,000 a year to repair. Crews routinely put down more asphalt, only to see the road sink and slump again. The Oregon Department of Transportation has repaired it every year, sometimes multiple times a year.
A more recent and, the state hopes, longer-lasting fix to the landslide at the root of the problem cost around $400,000 and involved a reinforced wall and a new guardrail. The wall is a way to strengthen the unstable ground and slow the slide using a combination of steel rods, or “nails,” drilled through the soft material, grout and a backfill of concrete.
The new wall has been in place all winter but the land is still settling, the asphalt still visibly warped, the road still bumpy.
Don Miller, a state transportation maintenance manager based out of Warrenton, said he was advised by contractors to wait as long as possible before crews went to smooth and repave the road.
There are local stories and theories about why this section continues to be such a problem. Historic photos seem to indicate it has always been an issue. The state has identified a slower-moving landslide as the culprit.
Mike Tardif, a senior engineering geologist for the state, says photos dating back to the 1950s show multiple applications of new asphalt, evidence of past efforts to repair the highway.
In 2012, Tardif was involved with an evaluation of the site. Instruments went into the ground to monitor the depth of the unstable soil and better illuminate what kind of fix might be necessary.
They lucked out, Tardif said. They were able to get information about where and how quickly the slide was moving in just a few months.
With some sites it can take much longer — even years — to figure out what’s going on.
“It’s like, ‘Good news! You’ve got a landslide. Bad news! You’ve got a landslide,’” Tardif said.
Highway 202 takes a beating from heavy truck traffic, but Tardif says it isn’t clear if traffic or land development have exacerbated the slide. Certainly, though, these things have been factors with other slides.
Weather, specifically rain, can also have a major impact. Often it is the intensity of the precipitation that can trigger slides.
Tardif responded to Oakridge in Lane County earlier this week after state Highway 58 had to be closed because of issues connected to 4 inches of rain from Friday evening through Sunday morning.
“If you have two days of several inches of rain, you can have your hands full,” he said.
Jim Riekkola, a log truck driver, has lived in a house above the problem section of Highway 202 since 2006.
“It’s been sinking the whole time,” he said.
The constant repairs haven’t been a major hassle, but his primary concern has been with how people choose to get around the slump.
There’s a sharp corner down from his driveway entrance. It’s hard enough to see the traffic that is coming around the corner, but as problems with the road persist, people driving eastbound who are familiar with the slump are sometimes already moving into the westbound lane as they shoot around the corner.
“You can’t see them,” Riekkola said. “We have to just creep out of the driveway.”
He and others suspect the source of the problem with the road might be farther down near the river. They aren’t convinced the state’s constant repairs are doing much.
“I know,” Miller said of the residents’ concerns. “That particular spot has been frustrating me as well.”
He is optimistic about the success of the reinforced wall, though.
After another week of letting the road settle, crews plan to go out to smooth one particularly large bump in the road, Miller said.
The highway will still be slumped until a more permanent repair is possible. This repair work, which involves digging out the road and filling in the sunken area with rock and then repaving with asphalt, will likely occur later in the summer, according to Lou Torres, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
“And then we’ll be done with it,” Miller said. He hopes.